Mean Streets: El Paso Targets Mobile Vendors With Protectionist Regulations

April 27, 2011

You’ve probably heard a lot of positive buzz about street vending lately. Vendors are the darling of many food critics, and they now have their own reality television show. Consumers love the combination of eclectic menus and low prices. Budding entrepreneurs love the low cost of entry and the chance to start a business from scratch. And some cities, like Austin with its recent “Gypsy Picnic,” have begun to embrace vendors for the life and vitality they bring to the local dining scene.

Unfortunately, in many other cities, vendors are being forced to fight for their very existence. Nowhere is this truer than in El Paso, Texas, where the city has banned vendors from operating within 1,000 feet of any restaurant, grocer or convenience store. If you imagine circles with a 1,000-foot radius drawn around every single business that sells food in El Paso, you will quickly see how onerous this restriction is. It has essentially turned El Paso into a No-Vending Zone.

This new restriction has absolutely nothing to do with protecting public health or safety. It is a transparent attempt to “protect” brick-and-mortar restaurants from competition by forcing vendors out of business. Notably, the head of the El Paso restaurant association and representatives of other brick-and-mortar restaurants served on the advisory board that assisted the city in drafting the new law.

The notion that restaurants—which enjoy numerous advantages over street vendors, such as the ability to seat and serve more customers, greater storage space, and full on-site kitchens—cannot survive competition from street vendors without government assistance is silly. The government shouldn’t be in the business of punishing some kinds of businesses in order to benefit others. Yet, El Paso has done exactly that by adopting a law that threatens to destroy a thriving vending culture, reduce consumer choice and drive up food prices.

The government has no right to deprive vendors of the opportunity to earn an honest living with a nakedly protectionist law designed to drive them out of business. That is why El Paso vendors have joined with IJ to fight back by suing the city in federal court to have the law declared unconstitutional. These vendors built their businesses piece by piece. They pay their taxes, comply with applicable food-safety and traffic regulations, and have vending licenses from the city. They have developed thriving businesses and a loyal customer base. As IJ client Yvonne Castaneda said, “We’re not asking for anything other than to be able to run our businesses in peace so that we can serve our customers and support ourselves and our families.”

In this upside-down economy, the government is bailing out businesses that could not make it on their own while punishing those that have managed to survive through innovation and hard work. This reflects neither the American ideals established by our Constitution, nor the kind of country that we all want to live in. El Paso should stop trying to run street vendors like Yvonne out of town and allow them to keep pursuing their American Dream. And that is exactly what the Institute for Justice is fighting for.

Matt Miller is the IJ Texas Chapter executive director.

Also in this issue

$10,000,000 IJ Challenge Grant: Robert Wilson Doubles Down for Liberty

IJ Clinic Client “Just Us” Plows a Path for Urban Entrepreneurs

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